Want something different? Why not try a hand at fives?

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The innate beauty of sport – in all of its many guises and variations – is its fundamental simplicity.

In spite of the infinite complexities and fine details which fascinate participants and spectators of every sport the world over, their initial interest inevitably stemmed, and continues to be nourished, by sport’s intrinsic lucidity.

This view was powerfully reinforced by my recent visit to Durham University Fives Club, which is the subject of this, the first in a series of articles for Palatinate examining some of Durham’s lesser-known sports clubs and societies.

The game of rugby fives – one of the most prominent varieties of fives and the format used by the Durham – is believed to have first been played at Rugby School in Warwickshire in the early nineteenth century, and shares many similarities with the game of squash.

Players in fives, however, do not have the use of a racket and instead simply use their gloved hands to rally the ball against the front wall of a four-sided court.

The object of the game is to strike the ball against the wall and above a bar placed approximately two-and-a-half feet above ground level, so that the opposing player or team cannot return it within one bounce.

The game is delightfully simple; it requires very little equipment, minimal preparation and its rules are very easy to grasp. This simplicity is one of fives’ primary assets, as it ensures your focus is not distracted by intricate rules, but instead you can admire the ability of those who have mastered a deceptively difficult art.

It is a sport enthralling to watch and exhilarating to play, and yet it remains one of the University’s smallest sports clubs, with its current membership of fourteen being its highest for a number of years.

“The fives club at Durham has a long history, it’s been around for a long time; at least since the 1920s, if not before”, explains Julian Aquilina, the club’s Captain.

In spite of its long and proud history, the acquisition and, more crucially, the retention of new players has been a frequent source of frustration for a club evidently keen to develop.

“A lot of people who have played at school sadly drop out at university, because not many places have fives courts. That’s really the limiting factor at present; the fact that there are so few fives courts,” Aquilina explains.

“It’s hard to get new members to keep coming back especially with a club like this, which is small and has quite a low-profile”

“It’s hard to get new members to keep coming back especially with a club like this, which is small and has quite a low-profile.”

There are numerous factors which contribute to the club’s present inability to expand, but the game itself is certainly not one of them.

It is an immensely challenging sport, requiring a multitude of different attributes: agility, speed, strength, spatial awareness and hand-eye co-ordination, to name but a few. These demands are partly what contrive to make the game so appealing to its players.

“It’s got everything I really look for in a sport”, explains Sam Russell, a first-year from Van Mildert who joined the club in fresher’s week after playing for five years at secondary school.

“It’s a very athletic game, but you have also got to be quite creative to move your opponent around the court and, because it’s a two-handed game, you have to be just as strong on your left hand as you do on your right.”

Its ambidexterity is one feature that really sets fives apart from other similar sports.

“It’s the only sport I can think of where you have to be just as strong on your weaker side as your stronger side, and I think that is something really unique about fives”, says Russell.

Despite the challenges posed by the sport – least of all the bruises that afflict anybody not used to striking what is an unforgivingly hard ball – the game has an addictive quality, an ability to simultaneously frustrate and delight and make you eager for more.

In addition to the undoubted attraction of the game itself, a crucial appeal of Durham’s fives club is that it offers the opportunity to become part of a very close-knit national community.

“My favourite thing about the sport is that, because it’s only played by perhaps two-hundred people competitively in the UK, you get to know your opponents and build up personal rivalries” explains Russell.

Durham University Fives Club remains, despite a host of recent successes, one of Team Durham’s smallest and quietest clubs. But what it offers to its members is the opportunity to partake in a truly invigorating sport, and become part of a vibrant and diverse national community.

Anybody seeking a sporting challenge that combines the conventional with the unusual could do a lot worse than look in the direction of fives.

Photograph: Wikipedia

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